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Safe Haven for Sobriety

Pamela Coffey, second from left, talks with Healthy House residents Michelle, far left, and, from Coffey’s left, Ella, Stacy and Chanel. © 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Women in recovery find support at Healthy House

Everything about Healthy House for Women feels like a home. Each room is painted a different trendy color — blues, grays, purples. White trim adds a clean, classic touch. The ceilings are high, and there is plenty of natural light. One glance at the couches in the living room and you know you’re going to sink into them in the best way. The seven women who live here share chores, cook together, gossip about the men they’re seeing or want to be seeing, complain about the coffee. But Healthy House is more than just a house; it’s a space for women in recovery from addiction and trauma.

Pamela Coffey, founder and executive director of Healthy House, greets you warmly as you step into the dwelling that she and her husband, Patrick, renovated in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood. Despite her small stature, her personality fills the foyer as she guides you toward the kitchen. She’s trying to find the best place to talk but deems the kitchen unsuitable because a woman is working on a job application and she doesn’t want to interrupt her. Coffey leads you through French doors to the living room.

“We created this house for women to have a safe place to come to when they were ready to start their journey over,” Coffey says, sitting on the couch with Stacy and Ella, two women currently living in the house.

A calling

When the Coffeys bought the five-bedroom house in 2014, they intended to fix it up and turn it into a rental home, but during the renovation process, Coffey says, she felt a call to use the house for a different purpose: as a structured environment in which women in recovery from addiction and trauma could heal. So she started a nonprofit organization and called the home Healthy House for Women.

She wanted to help women ages 18 to 65 who are at risk of homelessness because she knows from personal experience the struggles women sometimes go through. She lived with active addiction for 25 years, until her daughter became a ward of the state because of it. Coffey was court-ordered to enter a rehab facility in 1996 in Kalamazoo, and when her 28-day stay was over, she immediately started making many lifestyle changes and aligning herself with other women who were successfully staying clean.

She knows firsthand how difficult it is to find safe spaces for sober living when you’re right out of rehab. When Coffey was freshly clean, she moved into an apartment with a couple of other women she had met in recovery. But when she came home within the first week to find her roommates getting high, she knew she needed to move into a better neighborhood for her daughter, Yolonda, then just four years old. But her credit was bad, and the idea of being rejected from nicer apartment complexes made her feel shame. In a conversation with a member of her church about her dilemma, his response was, “Make people tell you ‘no.’”

“That just freed me up,” she says. “When somebody tells you ‘no,’ it’s not the end of the world. You just ask the next person. Prior to that, I thought ‘no’ brought shame. You get all of the ‘no’s out of the way so you can get to the ‘yes’es.”

Although addiction recovery programs don’t welcome relapses, they do concede that relapses are sometimes part of the road to recovery, she says. Coffey, however, has never relapsed.

“I stayed clean from the first time, so that’s why I know you can do it,” she says. “And is it gonna be easy all the way? Absolutely not. You put the hard work in first, and then it gets easier and easier.”

To Coffey and the women at Healthy House, the “hard work” is slowing down and adjusting to a structured lifestyle, learning to ask for help, being honest with housemates and therapists about urges to use alcohol or drugs, creating realistic goals, implementing practical steps to reach those goals, avoiding environments and people that aren’t conducive to successful recovery, and creating healthy emotional and psychological boundaries.

The screening process

In Healthy House’s first year and a half, Coffey operated it with money from her own pocket, but she has since been able to run the house on donations and grants. The women don’t pay rent. Many of the women come to Healthy House through Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health’s programs and services. Coffey’s professional consulting company also has a contract with the Michigan Department of Re-Entry for Women with Special Needs.

Coffey began welcoming women into Healthy House in June 2015. She welcomed every woman who applied for residency but quickly found that she needed a better screening process, since the women were not adhering to the house rules consistently enough. She changed tactics and instead had potential residents interview with a panel of board members that made more objective decisions about acceptance into or denial from the house.

“It’s worked out so much better than me sitting across the table from a woman, and I just want to see her change her life, whether she wants to do it or not,” Coffey says. “A lot of people want to get off the streets for a little bit, but I want to get to the women who really want to have a safe place and want to start over.”

Ella, a current Healthy House resident, says Coffey is very caring. “She’s got a heart as big as Kalamazoo, and she genuinely cares about each and every one of us,” she says. “She hurts when we hurt. She’s fantastic. God works through her very well.”

Enough time to succeed

The women coming into the house have already become sober through treatment programs, but part of the reason Coffey opened Healthy House was because she felt that a lot of the programs didn’t give women enough time to adjust to their new lifestyles. A typical stay in a rehab facility runs from 14 to 21 days, but in order to build a stronger foundation with which to move forward in sobriety successfully, they need more time, Coffey says.

In their first 30 days, the women staying in Coffey’s Healthy House are expected to relax. Coffey requires that they slow down, attend five meetings per week and therapy appointments in order to create a new routine and a strong foundation. She doesn’t want them looking for work within the first two weeks. But she notices that the first 30 days are also “the hardest part for most of the women.”

“The first 30 days you’re on restriction, and restriction looks like curfew at 9 o’clock,” Coffey says. “You can only go to outpatient treatment, therapy appointments, meetings and doctor’s visits. All the other times you have to be in the house.”

Towels and bed linens are provided, but food is usually not, although Coffey sometimes buys healthy food like organic pasta for the women. “I used to buy all the food,” Coffey says. “Then I stopped because they got to learn how to buy food for themselves. ’Cause when we’re getting high, that (the drug) is all we focus on. We don’t focus on food. That’s a lie. That is our food. It becomes our food, that drug.”

At the height of her addiction, one resident, Sam, had isolated herself for two years, hardly leaving her house. “I’m thankful for this house because I didn’t realize how life can get you like this,” says Sam, 29. “I’m not really scared about it, but I’m just thankful that I can be eased back into this.”

Sam arrived at Healthy House in mid-June. She says she understands why the first month of her stay was structured the way it was, though she didn’t like it at first.

Ella, who also came to the house in mid-June, has a similar viewpoint. “Before (getting sober) it was so chaotic,” she says. “Our life was just whatever. Scheduling and structure are really key.”

The women who enter Healthy House through Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health programs are provided funding to stay for 90 days, while those in the prisoner re-entry program are able to stay for six months. But Coffey says that as long as the women are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, she allows them to stay as long as necessary. She is working to get funding to help cover the cost of women staying longer than the 90 days of the SWMBH program.

“‘I’m not going to put you out.’ That’s her quote,” says Healthy House resident Stacy. “We really appreciate that!”

Coffey talks to the women about using their resources. “It’s all about connecting to the right person,” she says. She advises them to pick up tools for staying sober from other women who have more years of sobriety under their belts. “Just because you think about using doesn’t mean you have to act on it,” she says. She also urges the women to eat healthily and exercise and especially to look out for each other and ask for help.

“It’s hard to ask,” Sam says. “We don’t know how to ask, but then (Coffey tells us) how to ask a few more times because the first time you’re not going to be able to get your answer.”

One-strike policy

Coffey checks in with all the women on a weekly basis, though much of the support within the house is provided by the women themselves. However, if a woman violates the rules, she’s out. Coffey has a one-strike policy.

“When I come around them, it’s not like they need to be fearful. We talk about everything,” she says. “But when the rules are broken, I’ll come in and say, ‘You have 30 minutes to pack your things,’ when I feel like somebody is compromising the house.”

Coffey is tough on the women, but she doesn’t like to write them off when they have relapses. She says she’s still in contact with some of the women who have broken house rules and been kicked out. During a conversation among a small group of the Healthy House women, a couple of past residents are described as “bad apples” and Coffey is quick to correct that description.

“They weren’t ready,” she replies firmly. “I don’t like to say that. They not ready yet.”

Active community members

After the first 30 days, the women at Healthy House are expected to find jobs, volunteer, or return to school — essentially become active members of the community in a new and healthy way.

“The women who come here, they will serve the community. They will go back and they’ll help other women because they know what got them here,” Coffey says. “Even just bringing a woman off the streets into our house, she becomes a productive member of society. She gets a job. She starts paying bills. So that’s an asset to our community. And to have women doing that says that we are in a community that can heal.”

Since the opening of Healthy House, 91 women have stayed there and 60 percent of them have completed the program successfully. Coffey says that she’s just getting into the “sweet spot with the house, knowing what it needs, knowing what the women need and allowing them to be themselves. It’s good work. I feel very honored to be able to serve.”

As much as Coffey loves working with women (she was a hairstylist for 35 years), she says that she does this work for the children of the women in her care.

“Stronger parents mean healthier children —women who can show up in their kids’ lives and children who can be proud of their moms.”

Jordan Bradley

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